The Integration of Women into the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, Post-World War II to the Mid 1990s

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    The history of women in Britain's armed forces is dominated by wartime participation and, latterly, explanations of wider employment of servicewomen in the 1990s. Women's service is mainly attributed to lessening the need for men. Reasons suggested for 1990s' developments have included social factors, technology, servicewomen's career aspirations and policy-makers' attitudes. However, army issues overshadow accounts that emerge from the other Services.

    When regular service was introduced, women were excluded from seagoing, flying and weapons' training. Terms of service on marriage and pregnancy ensured careers were long-term opportunities only for childless women. This thesis accounts for how the reputedly egalitarian Royal Air Force (RAF) integrated its servicewomen, expanding their employment into armed guard duties and flying 'non-combat' aircraft, while asserting that women's exclusion from combat was upheld. This contrasted with the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS). As a separate, shore- based organisation, it illustrated the conservative approach taken by the naval authorities. Yet it was the Royal Navy (RN) that opened main combat roles to women first.

    This thesis argues that the Admiralty reluctantly established a peacetime WRNS in response to Air Ministry and War Office policy. It restricted women's employment until failure to adjust to social change led to a personnel crisis in the late 1980s. Unable to follow the RAF's piecemeal widening of women's roles, seagoing in warships was approved in 1990, overturning women's exclusion from main combat roles. RAF combat jet flying followed as a consequence. However, for the vast majority of airwomen, the 1982 decision to introduce weapons' training made them as combatant as male counterparts. Exclusion from land warfare continued; the RN and the RAF followed the army's lead. The armed forces' right to be different from civilian maternity policy succumbed to legal challenge rather than commitment to modernising terms of employment.
    Date of Award2013
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • King's College London
    SupervisorPatricia Thane (Supervisor) & David Edgerton (Supervisor)

    Cite this